Wilcke: Paid sick time is a public health issue

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by Burt Wilcke of South Burlington, a member of the Vermont Public Health Association Board.

When a food service employee in Vermont gets sick, he or she will likely want to stay home – and certainly, as patrons, we expect that food service staff will not be at work sick. Unfortunately, even in Vermont, thousands of people can’t afford to miss a day of work for fear that they could lose their jobs if they call in sick, whether for their own illness or for an illness of a dependant. Just recently, a single mother from Brattleboro testified in the Legislature that she lost her job at a local fast food establishment because she was forced to stay home with her daughter who came down with pneumonia.

A 2008 study by medical students at the UVM School of Medicine found that Vermonters who are parents of elementary school children and who don’t have paid sick time are five times more likely to send their child to school with an infectious illness.

Unfortunately, facing this kind of conflict between work and health is not an isolated incident. About one third of those who work in Vermont’s private sector do not have access to even a single day of paid sick time. Low wage earners who can least afford to take an unpaid day are the hardest hit. More than 80 percent of Vermont’s lowest wage earners do not earn any paid sick time. It has been determined that workers without paid sick time are one and one half times as likely to go to work, even when they know they have a contagious disease.

But paid time off for health care isn’t just an issue that impacts our workforce, it also poses a serious problem to the children in our schools and in childcare. Nationally, workers without paid sick time are twice as likely to send their children to school or child care when their children are ill and in Vermont, a 2008 study by medical students at the UVM School of Medicine found that Vermonters who are parents of elementary school children and who don’t have paid sick time are five times more likely to send their child to school with an infectious illness. The transmission of communicable diseases in schools or daycare settings is a major public health problem and a workforce that has paid sick time is a proven way to minimize unnecessary exposure among children.

Clearly it is in the best interest of our state, and especially our families, to ensure that Vermont workers have access to paid sick time. Three municipalities and one state in the United States have laws that require businesses to provide a minimum amount of earned paid sick time to their employees. Right now, there is a bill (H.208) in the Vermont House that would set a minimum standard for earned health care time in our state. Guaranteeing sick time is good for working families. It is good for business. And most importantly, it is good for the public health and wellbeing of all Vermonters.

For the health of all Vermonters, the Vermont Public Health Association supports H.208.

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  • Walter Carpenter

    As someone who went to work this week, despite having an awful virus of some kind, and thus lost a paycheck or two, the idea of paid sick leave is a great idea. At least I did not lose my job. There is something to be said for that. Quite often you do. Maybe someday.

  • Tom Haviland

    Here’s an idea: If you go to a business establishment and notice a sick employee, put that in a google review of the business.

    • Definitely a great idea: who better to diagnose illness than untrained Vermonters? And what better way to deal with a public health issue than making accusations about private businesses online?

  • joanie maclay

    Thank You, Dr. Wilcke. As usual, you’re right on!!

  • Jamal Kheiry

    There are undoubtedly thousands of things businesses could – and maybe even should – do that would be “good” for their employees. Based on the premise that what’s good for employees is good for businesses, one could therefore say these thousands of things are “good for business,” as the author of this piece does.

    But just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean a law has to be passed forcing everyone to do it. Arguing that this particular idea is different because it’s a “public health issue” seems weak to me, given that sick people don’t sequester themselves away from all human contact even if they stay away from work, and that even stay-at-home parents will send sick kids to school because they have other plans that day, and that sick folks still have to go to the grocery store (for NyQuil, if nothing else!), hardware store, etc.